Nothing Fishy About Aquaponics

In an industry still solidifying its cultivation techniques, one grower has made a splash by getting rid of soil altogether, a process called aquaponics.

Heavy Hitter Garden Group operator Chris Harvey said he began growing cannabis in a traditional manner, but a trip to Richmond where he observed the area around a waste treatment facility inspired him to look at other options.

“Take a look at what’s growing around there and see the level of growth – it is absolutely phenomenal,” said Harvey, who said the waste elements in the water enhanced the surrounding vegetation.

Looking at set-ups used to grow plants in facilities in Australia and UBC, Harvey established an aquaponics facility, a system that uses fish and bacteria, not supplements, to provide nutrients to his cannabis plants.

Having been using aquaponics for about five years, Harvey said the system produces plants that grow up to 20 per cent faster.

“I could literally go to your backyard, dig up a bucket full of soil, split it in half, put a plant in one and a plant in the other and water one from the fish tank, and I bet you, within a month, one’s twice the size of the other,” said Harvey.

Harvey said the quality of the plant is also higher because of the natural way in which they are grown, as opposed to adding artificial nutrients.

“You’re getting a much cleaner product,” said Harvey. “The plants are generally happier, it’s all nice and lime green and perky, everywhere. The up and down of the chemical fertilizers, it’s a real rollercoaster ride that you get on.”

Rejean Houle at Budzilla in Vancouver said he’s bought Harvey’s product in the past and called the process “brilliant.”

“It’s absolutely stunning quality, all organic,” said Houle. “You really can’t ask for better. It’s really top shelf, his medicine.”

Although now so well-balanced that he’s able to leave his system for up to a week, Harvey said the most critical part in set-up is the first three months when the living elements, fish and bacteria, are introduced to each other and need to develop an equilibrium.

“It’s a community thing, you get the community balanced and you’re there – just add plants,” said Harvey.

Once this is done, Harvey said the toughest part for him is resisting the urge to meddle with the plants after experience with more traditional growth techniques like hydroponics, where he said he would change his nutrient reservoirs frequently in response to the plants.

“It’s rich in life, it’s been a real chore to not clean up that bacteria, if you get a good whiff of it – it stinks. I smell that now and I smell money,” said Harvey. “Really the best thing to do is just leave the damn thing alone. The plants are fine, it’s me that’s worried. The fish do all of the work.”

Harvey uses Tilapia, a fish that lives naturally in the steams and rivers of Thailand. Harvey said the hardy fish are able to live in brackish, human waste filled waterways and have become increasingly important to the aquaculture industry due to this resiliency.

Despite the fish being illegal in Canada, Harvey was still able to purchase them easily.

“I bought my tilapia at Superstore,” said Harvey, who made two trips to the grocery store with a five gallon bucket. “I told them I was going to make dinner and I wanted to have them fresh.”

And he wasn’t lying, they did make their way to his dinner plate — just with a stop in-between to nurture his plants.

Harvey estimated he gets 40-50 pounds of fish a year from his operation, which are fed by Harvey and in turn release their effluence into the ponds for the plants to feed off of.

But all those fish have their downside. One of Harvey’s recommendations was to eliminate the fishes’ reproduction, although he admitted it’s sometimes a difficult task.

With the fish spawning 8,000 – 10,000 offspring a month, some would get into the piping, enter the pond with the plants and eat the roots.

“The fry that come out of this are a giant pain in the ass. The next thing you know you’ve got something stuck somewhere,” Harvey said, who plans to only deal with mature fish going forward. “That’s the one bad thing about this – the fry. Get rid of the fry.

Harvey said he’s in the midst of vastly expanding his operation on a 10-acre-lot this spring.

“I’m going big,” said Harvey. “Instead of using industrial bulk containers for my reservoirs I’m using ponds that I can swim in.”

His plans include using five large ponds with a five-foot drop between them to oxygenate the water. The first four ponds will contain the plants with the fish at the bottom and water pumped back up to the top to feed the cannabis — a system that he said is the simplest he’s ever used since entering into aquaponics.

“The organic side of this is so strong. A lot of the problems I’ve had with chemical fertilizers – I just don’t see here,” said Harvey. “This has been tested on every vegetable, including trees, and it works.”

“As soon as people figure out how to do this it’s going to change the whole growing industry.”